The Assassination of Robert Kennedy

The Washington Post's David Broder recalls the 1968 presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. Video by Tom Kennedy and Ed O'Keefe/, Photos by Getty Images, Corbis, and APRFK's Indiana Primary Ads
Thursday, June 5, 2008; 12:00 AM

It was 40 years ago today, in the midst of a tumultuous election year, that Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Robert Kennedy was shot in the hallway of a Los Angeles hotel. In the days that followed, The Post editorial board tried to make sense of his shooting and his legacy.

The Shooting of Senator Kennedy

June 6, 1968

As the hospital bulletins grew more grave and Senator Kennedy struggled for life through yesterday's interminable hours, it was safer and more sensible to think about the man than about the meaning of his shooting, which had no meaning by itself. It was safer and more sensible to dwell upon his performance and his bright promise than to search in this senseless act for some pattern, some lesson, some dark insight into our society and our times. There may well be some meaning in it all -- in the tragedy that has dogged his life and in the violence which has visited itself with such caprice upon the country. Or there may, as Shakespeare said, be none. "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport."

In any case, the meaning surely is not that the United States is in anarchy, or that the world has gone mad. This is the stuff of public comment forced upon leading figures while they are still in shock. The wisest among them will think better of it. And they must, for a nation perilously close to hysteria cannot deal rationally with a crisis of crime and violence which cries out for reason and restraint....

[I]f the tragedy in Los Angeles should be the cause, in whatever degree, of a great national awakening to the evils of extremism and violence on the campus or on the street, of a national resolution to plumb the depth of this problem and to deal with it, so much the better. For there can be no denying that there is abroad in this land a nameless virulence which feeds upon itself.

In this sense the crime in Los Angeles and the lawlessness that afflicts the whole Nation are of a piece. But only in a sense. For the tragedy in Los Angeles does not tell us anything we did not know about the wider malady. It tells us once again to act. But the Nation's first response also warns us not to be too quick to lacerate ourselves with cries of anarchy or too ready to delude ourselves with empty promises of law and order at any cost. Senator Kennedy would scorn such easy answers. Still less would he draw the simpler lesson that he should have somehow been more careful for he has ever been the zestful warrior, and a fatalist....

Robert Francis Kennedy

June 7, 1968

He was John F. Kennedy's kid brother and maybe that was where it began and why, in a special sense, this man who hated so to lose, and almost never did, also found it hard to win. Even after he became an able Attorney General and then a Senator and finally a serious candidate for President, he was still brother Bobby to those who did not know him and did not wish him well. The clichés came quickly and stuck fast -- ruthless, abrasive, power-hungry, opportunistic. And while some of them had some foundation not one of them was right.

For the first thing about Senator Robert Kennedy is that he was much too intricate and many-faceted a man to be captured in a cliché. He was tough-kind, considerate-thoughtless, gay-brooding, witty-blunt. Above all he was driven, and while the forces that drove him cannot all be measured, they were nothing so simple or sordid as a hunger for power or personal gain. The latter he did not need.

As for power, he sought it endlessly, but not for itself. For he was, above all, a compassionate man who wanted to improve the lot of other men. He wanted to move the country, to break new ground in response to new challenges as he saw them, and political power was the instrument he needed to do what he thought would be good -- for cruelly neglected Indian children, for the people of the ghetto, for the disadvantaged here and everywhere. Like his older brother, he scorned the slow pace of the Senate and the diluted influence of a Senator for this did not fit his temper. He reached with restless energy, and some logic, for the Presidency because that is where the political power is.

Those who would downgrade him for running for office on his brother's name were asking him to retire from public life ¿ or change his name. Those who decried his belated entry into the presidential race, after Senator McCarthy had led the way, might have a case against his political judgment or his methods. But not against his purposes. While he may not necessarily have had the right answers to Vietnam, or poverty, or the control of crime, his concern was consistent and profound.

He was a moralist, in a frenzied hurry, and this, perhaps, is where his troubles came. For he was more emotional than intellectual and always combative. Whether hunting convention delegates for his brother or hounding Jimmy Hoffa, he worked with a relentless, single-minded intensity. Still only 35 when he became Attorney General in his brother's Cabinet, he applied himself to that assignment with the same intensity and with an increasingly skillful hand. He would be well remembered for his contributions to the Kennedy Administration and the country in this capacity alone. He brought to the Department of Justice such men as Byron White, Burke Marshall, and two successors, Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, and the incumbent Attorney General, Ramsey Clark. In a short span, he revitalized the Department's attack on organized crime and established greater control over the FBI than had been exercised in many years. From Montgomery to Oxford to Tuscaloosa he led the hard campaign against racial discrimination with tough-minded determination and skill.

For a good part of his life at the pinnacle of power, Robert Kennedy was his brother's closest counselor -- devoted, loyal, effective, controversial, and often deeply resented, as the best right-hand men can expect to be. For he was the President's kid brother, as he had always been, and now we shall never know whether he might have become President or what kind of President he might have been.

We do know, however, that he spoke eloquently for the young and for the oppressed, and that he understood the new generation and the new forces which will shape this country in the years ahead, better than most men on the public scene. He may have been too far out on his own new frontier, too far out of harmony with the national mood. If so, it is some comfort that he was on the up-beat when he was felled, that he was back in the winning column where he passionately wanted to be.

But it is not much comfort. For he was himself a force for change and movement and progress, and for what he thought was good. And in these tormented times his country cannot afford the loss of such a force.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company